"Reason is always a kind of brute force; those who appeal to the head rather than the heart, however pallid and polite, are necessarily men of violence. We speak of 'touching' a man's heart, but we can do nothing to his head but hit it." --G.K. Chesterton

Monday, December 18, 2023

Jazz Evensong: Gathering in the key of God

A small Christian church in Burnaby has embraced jazz music to revitalize its congregation and at the same time inspired a Catholic priest in Coquitlam to consider singing from the same songbook. Under the leadership of Rev. Dr. Brian Fraser, Brentwood Presbyterian Church began offering jazz-music-infused services in 2009 and then weekly Jazz Evensong events in 2017. Today, the church (which is immediately south of Holy Cross Church in Burnaby) has become something of a jazz mecca, allowing musicians to rent the acoustically rich space for rehearsals, and even commissioning composers to write Christian-infused jazz music. Father Larry Lynn speaking with Jazz Evensong organizer Rev. Dr. Brian Fraser. Inspired by Jazz Evensong, Father Lynn is interested in creating a “jazz vespers program” at his parish, Our Lady of Lourdes in Coquitlam. During each Wednesday-night Evensong event, Rev. Fraser devotes 10 minutes between musical sets to reflect on connections between the Christian message and jazz music. In late September, for example, he spoke about American jazz pianist Mary Lou Williams, a convert to Catholicism, who said, “Jazz is healing to the soul.” Fraser commented: “Now, I don’t have the musical capacity that Mary Lou Williams had. But one of the things that we talk a lot about here at Brentwood – especially the relationship between jazz and faith – is that we are all jazz musicians because the most common form of jazz in the human experience is ordinary conversation.” He explained, “Every time you open your mouth to have a conversation, you are playing jazz. There’s a structure, vocabulary, and grammar. Each of us, with our unique voices, in our unique ways, in our unique situations and contexts, use that structure differently ... One of the things that we keep focusing on is that jazz musicians and Christians tell love stories.” Father Larry Lynn, pastor of Our Lady of Lourdes in Coquitlam and a life-long jazz lover, is intrigued by what he has seen at Brentwood Presbyterian. “I love Pastor Fraser’s initiative to try to bring jazz into his church,” Father Lynn said. “I love that he prayed before the concert and that he invoked Jesus during his talks. He’s providing a space for people to encounter Christ through a medium that doesn’t usually acknowledge the spiritual, even though it can be a thoroughly spiritual experience. “Music moves the soul – that’s the reality and I think jazz, because it’s a kind of exploratory music, might be for those who are open to an exploration of their soul.” On a recent evening when Father Lynn attended Jazz Evensong, the Mike Allen Quartet performed the music of John Coltrane’s landmark jazz album, A Love Supreme, which is widely seen as a work of deep spirituality. Father Lynn said the event moved him to consider the question of where we encounter Christ. “When Christ was walking the earth, he met people at precisely the place he found them,” he said. “And they could be anywhere or anybody: rabbis, tax collectors, pharisees, paupers, beggars, governors, high priests, adulterers, thieves. demoniacs, widows, fishermen, you name it. “He loved them all and showed them the way. I’m sure if he had met some jazz musicians, he would have grooved along with them. But they would have known they were in special company and Jesus would have had them seeing clearly his Gospel message. He would have met them in the key of God!” Father Lynn said he thinks “it would be great” for a Catholic church to explore something like a jazz vespers program. “At my parish, I’m doing a renovation of the church basement and I’m thinking about allowing it to be a venue for small music groups, whether it’s jazz, chamber music, folk music,” he said. “What a beautiful thing it would be to invite folks in and see Jesus in their lives in and through the music they love. How awesome that would be!”

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